What you resist will persist, unless you know it was all a myth in the first place: Lee Bob Black interviews Toby Thompkins
This interview with Toby Thompkins, author of The Real Lives of Strong Black Women: Transcending Myths, Reclaiming Joy, sheds light on group talk therapy, transformation, how being a writer can be sexy, going beyond being just an African American writer, pineapples as power, scaring the living daylights out of white people, why people really buy books, dreadlocks, and Rolaids. Oh, and why Toby wants to put crying black men on television.
Part 1: Toby’s book, The Real Lives of Strong Black Women
Lee Bob Black: Where did the first impulses for this book come from?
Toby Thompkins: I was struggling with getting published. I had two other book projects that were not African American-centered, that dealt with friendship and success. And I wasn’t getting any bites, and I had been encouraged by some people in publishing to write a black book. I had an issue with that. I’m like, “Okay, yes, I’m black, why do I therefore have to write a black book?” Then I was talking with my friend about my mother who passed in ’98. And we realized that I could write a book about women who had a life experience similar to my mother’s. So my friend said, “You have a level of sensitivity about the experience of black women, and no-one’s really handled what we go through from the perspective that a sensitive black man could bring to it.” And you know how sometimes people say things, and then it hits you in the third eye, like boing. That happened. I said, “I can do that.”
LBB: When did you start writing and how long did it take to write?
TT: The first thing I had to do was move. I left Miami because I realized I needed to be nearer the publishing industry. So I moved to New York, got rid of my old literary agent, did some preliminary interviews, wrote a proposal, got a new agent, then three months later he got the book deal. The interviewing and focus groups took a year and a half. The actual writing took six months.
LBB: What are some themes of Strong Black Women?
TT: I chose basically the big ten, which translated into ten chapters. The first is an examination of what love means today to strong black women and how it’s often misinterpreted, that they still buy into a Hollywood falsified notion of love, as opposed to a simple, every day form of love.
Another theme is how strength gets passed down between mother and daughter. I have a chapter called ‘Mama and Mini Me: Mother/Daughter Power Struggles.’ Huge, huge, huge issue with strong black women because, when you’re the daughter, or when you’re the child, the mother is a superhero, she is a Get Christie Love. But as the daughter becomes older, the strength is put upon her by the mother in a way that she has to assume the magical powers and the role of Superwoman. And that’s not necessarily the expectation between the mother and the son.
Another theme that I didn’t see coming into this was abandonment, and how strong black women are in part strong because they have a lot of experience of being abandoned socially, culturally, interpersonally, in terms of feeling excluded from the social standards of beauty, in terms of how their men are typically not there, and they find themselves head of households, in terms of their feelings and how their voice gets discounted, in terms of the social conversation and the social fabric that they live and thrive in, in terms of how their contributions get minimized in any public way. There are all kinds of statistics that point to these things, but until I really listened to them, I never heard of it as abandonment. Then, when you go and read the literature of abandonment, and what it causes in the life of a person who feels abandoned, voila, I understand how abandonment feeds into the myth of being a strong black woman.
Another big theme was this notion of what I call ‘dating with your eyes wide open’ and some of the mistakes and sacrifices that women make in relationships with men, just to not be alone. I identified two kinds of strong black women, ‘makers of men’ and ‘breakers of men.’ And how their strength gets misused in interpersonal relationships in ways that don’t ultimately serve what they want or their emotional needs.
LBB: Talk about the woman on the book cover.
TT: The cover speaks to, I think, the essence of every strong black woman. Because of the silhouette, because of the light on her face, and the fact that her eyes are closed, it speaks to what’s real, what she’s really experiencing, what’s real for her, as opposed to what’s real for us. I love the cover for that.
LBB: What else can you say about your mother that’s not already in the book?
TT: That she could have made the decision--and I think I say this in the book--earlier in her life to reclaim more happiness. My mother wasn’t an unhappy person. But my mother’s equation for happiness created more angst in her life, for the majority of her life, then it did at the end of her life when she changed her equation.
LBB: You wrote that she learned that life is less about being strong and more about happiness.
TT: Absolutely. That’s the equation. It was very important for my mother to be tough, to never let anyone see her sweat, to never be perceived as weak, to never let them know they got to her, whoever ‘they’ represented. She could never appear less than invincible. I remember as a child, which I didn’t put in the book, that we would all use each other’s facecloths in the morning, and my foster brothers and I loved using my mother’s facecloth. I remember her in the bathroom one morning losing it because her facecloth was wet, and she kept saying, “Can’t I have anything that’s mine?” To me, that represented the level of sacrifice that she was making every day.
LBB: This touches on the main paradox in your book. The title refers to the ‘real lives’ of strong black women, and the subtitle refers to ‘transcending myths.’ Are you saying your mother’s strength, for most of her life, was a myth, and then in her last year, she identified that she didn’t need to be strong?
TT: There’s strength in vulnerability. There is strength in being able to say, “I hurt, and you hurt me.” There’s strength in being able to express what you need, and what you want, and what you deserve. Those are all of the things that, operating under the myth of strength, the myth of the strong black woman, get taken away from you. The myth is created out of a history that starts from slavery and gets transported generationally down into the psyche of black women today where they are basically told that the things that you think you might have or that you see other women having, you don’t have. You don’t have the luxury of counting on a husband to be around because, since slavery, families were split, etc. All of that psychic generational message gets transferred down into modern black women who feel like men are dogs, they’re not going to be around, I’ve got to do it on my own, I’ve got to keep my money, my stash, so that I’m never left alone out in the cold. These messages, that mothers pass to their daughters, come from generations of imprinting about the destiny of black women around this myth, which doesn’t make it possible for them to say, “What a minute, I deserve to be able to find a man who will be loyal, who will be a breadwinner, who will be whatever I want, I deserve the things that I see other people having.” And many women don’t feel that they deserve that, even to say, “I need help.” I can’t tell you how many women said, “I don’t know how to be needy. That doesn’t mean I don’t have needs. I just don’t know how to get my needs expressed.”
LBB: How are those myths transcended?
TT: The whole book is about how those myths are transcended.
LBB: So in each of the ten chapters you address a myth and how it can be transcended?
TT: Exactly. In the ‘Mother/Daughter’ chapter, I offer three behavioral practices around living and let living, around recognizing your child is not here to live the life you want them to live, but they’re here to live the life they were meant to live.
Another one is practicing compassion over blame. Because one of the tools, which are really weapons, that strong black women can use, is blame. “You didn’t do it the way I told you to, and now look what happened.” Or, “I’ve got an answer and there’s one answer, it’s my answer, it’s the right way, and since you didn’t follow it that way, boom.” And a lot of women who talk about the challenges of strength in their relationships talk about blame and guilt in those relationships where there’s this battle around strong wills.
Another one is learning to step back from emotionally tense situations, and allowing time to pass so they don’t have to react, to pull out the amour, so to speak. But they can just allow the situation, the dynamics, the landscape to change, and then visit it from a very different place. A lot of these situations trigger the mythical black woman to come to the forefront, and what they need to learn is to step away from those situations, and allow the moment to pass. That’s one of the ways you can disempower the myth.
LBB: To acknowledge the trigger is just a trigger.
TT: And for a lot of women, they don’t even see the triggers. They don’t even realize they’re stepping into the myth.
LBB: What function do you hope your book will perform in society?
TT: I hope everything that I do, and everything in this book, and everything beyond that, contributes to healing. At forty-three years of age, I’ve realized that the most important contribution I can make is one that helps heal individuals, interpersonal relationships, social and cultural phenomenon. I hope this book creates not only a space for healing for women of color, but for anybody who can identify with how myths impact their lives, and anyone who loves people affected by these myths.
LBB: Your website identifies itself as a “place to heal, to learn, to laugh, to grow, to love.” Is that an extension of what you’d like to do?
TT: I created TobySpeaks.com because I said to myself, “I’m a writer, but what does that mean? Am I going to write about anything? What are the things I want to invest myself in every day?” And those are the things. I want to invest myself in things that have to do with healing, with learning, with laughing--laughter is a wonderful healing tool--with growing--because if you look at your life and don’t see growth every day, there’s a problem. And love, and really being able to understand love in a deeper, richer context. Not just in a surface, Valentines Day way. But to begin to understand how love manifests in your life.
LBB: How was researching Strong Black Women? You did interviews and focus groups involving approximately one hundred and fifty people.
TT: I found the focus groups the most fascinating. We’re sitting in a room full of strangers, dealing with some tough issues, and they’re like, poof, they just opened up. They totally exposed themselves. I was like, “You don’t even know these people, and you’re talking about the first time you were molested.” It’s powerful when you’re in a group who has a similar experience, how thin the veneer is, and you just have to create a space for people to examine that, and how healing that is. In every 90-minute focus group, I had to say, “It’s three hours, you’ve got to leave. I’m sorry.” And they were like, “This was wonderful, this was great.” There was a catharsis.
LBB: Your book questions some of the ideals of strength that some women hold dear to heart. Do you think there’ll be backlash concerning your deconstruction of strong black women? How do you hope that invalidating archetypes and ideals will be viewed?
TT: There’s always a risk of backlash. This book is going to be uncomfortable for women who hold dear the myth of strength but who are not looking at what it costs in terms of their happiness. It’s possible that living through the myth is working powerfully in their lives. All of the black women who have operated through it have realized significant benefits. At a certain point you have to look at both sides of the coin, and since your priorities, values, and desires change, what a black woman might want at one point in her life, and gets realized through the mythology of strength, may not create as much angst as it might in the future. When she’s fresh out of college and wants to climb the corporate ladder, and she’s strong about it, that might not be something she’s willing to examine, particularly if the myth is working. However at forty, when she’s spent twenty years focusing on her career but she hasn’t successfully realized other areas of her life, or she sees how the myth of strength has aided in failures in her personal life, she may be more willing to embrace some of the issues I explore in the book.
LBB: Such as the vicious emotional cycles of self-destruction that you write about.
TT: If you’re strong enough, you can force something to happen that isn’t meant to happen, or isn’t capable of happening. And when you do that, the consequences are horrendous, and it can be a really vicious attack on your own being, identity, and self-esteem, because you’re trying to take what’s real and make it fit a myth that you’ve assumed. We all know that myths exist to replace truths. So what’s real about you, a situation, or your choices, never gets validated. I see women who are locked in to that. One woman said to me, “The true test of every strong black woman is to get a man, and keep a man.” If living from that myth means making unhealthy decisions in your relationships, how you participate in them, and how long you stay in them, then that can be a vicious attack on yourself, a form of self-abandonment.
LBB: You’re considering getting a documentary crew to film the focus groups for book two in your trilogy. What do you envision for that project?
TT: I envision capturing real moments in the daily lives of black men that society doesn’t see, or, if they do see them, they see them as the exception rather than the norm, even when they are the norm in black male experience. And communicating that in a way that gives us a deeper and richer understanding of what it means to be a strong black man in society today.
Strength is built out of resistance. I still don’t think that even black women understand what black men are having to be strong around, and the ways in which they have to be strong. And I don’t think a lot of black men see that in their own experience. I think it can be very helpful to have the uncensored voice, the uncensored tears. When was the last time you saw a black man cry on television? Think about that. We don’t really understand that black men have tears. We do understand that black men have rage. But we don’t understand that shortly before or after that rage, are tears, and the tears are hurt. And there are a lot of black men who can’t even cry and don’t see tears for what they really are, which is a cleansing process. So there’s so much of that kind of stuff that’s real but hidden from, not only the view of the public, but also the view of other black men. Because we hide those experiences from ourselves. I want to capture that in the film.
LBB: Has Oprah called yet?
TT: [Laughs] From your mouth to Oprah’s ears. No, she hasn’t. It’s weird, everybody says, “Wait till Oprah hears about this. This is an Oprah book.”
LBB: It seems a little oversimplified.
TT: I don’t know if people say that because they don’t know what else to say. I can’t tell you how many people hear about the book, and immediately they say it’s an Oprah book. Well, if it’s an Oprah book, I’ll guess I’ll hear from her, right. She can reach me at (917) 434 3840.
Photo: Toby Thompkins.
Part 2: Toby as a writer
LBB: How did you become a writer?
TT: I had a pre-mid life crisis. I was on a very well lit corporate ladder track, living in a Chicago suburb, with a nice house and a nice car. I was miserable. I was 370 pounds. I had a hiatal hernia and reflux that kept me eating family size bottles of Rolaids. But I knew I looked good in a suit. I played the corporate game well. And I got rewarded for it. But I was depressed. So, I quite my job, liquidated my assets, got an apartment on the beach--I wanted a dog, I was thirty-five. I did all that, and, two weeks before leaving, I got the strength to tell my family what I had done. I called and said, ”I’m giving you my new address. I’m moving to south Florida. I’m going to become a writer.” I expected my mother to have a stroke. Their approval was very important to me. My mother and father said, “You haven’t been happy for a very long time. And you’ve always landed on your feet. So go with our blessings.” I needed that. Because it was from 1996 to this moment, before the book I thought was going to be written by 1997, has materialized. It’s taken eight years. I had to fundamentally go through my own transformation to become the person sitting before you today. And eight years ago, there’s no way I could have had the compassion, sensitivity, and insight that has contributed to what I have written. I had to go through hell. I had to walk away from material comfort. I had to walk away from friendships. I had to suffer under criticism, self-doubt. Just to get to this point. And in the process, I grew dreadlocks.
LBB: Authentic dreadlocks?
TT: Not hairdresser dreadlocks, not weave or horsehair or anything else. The real stuff.
I got clear that what I wanted was three things. One is creativity. Two is flexibility. By flexibility I mean the ability to be here, there, or anywhere. I love to travel. I love different parts of the world. I get stimulated by that. And three is autonomy. By autonomy I mean financial autonomy to not need to do X, Y, or Z. I said, “What are the things that I can do that give me the highest combination of those three things?” I think of those as the conditions for my life, as opposed to the goals of my life. I think a lot of people stay focused on what they want to become. I don’t do that anymore. I stay focused on the experience, the conditions I want to manifest in my life. And so writing and believing that the better writer I became, the more creativity, flexibility, and autonomy I would provide for myself--it was that or Wall Street, which would have been low for creativity, possibly high for flexibility depending on what area I went into as long as I had a laptop and a cellphone, and maybe high financially in terms of autonomy. But writing, if I’m good at it, and I can believe I can be good at it, I’m going to get high marks on all three.
LBB: Why do you think you can write with authority about women’s experiences?
TT: I can write with authority of women’s experiences because I have many experiences with women. We all come from women, they’re our first environment, so, by default, any man, any human being, has an experience with a woman as a part of how they come into this world. Whether they can cognate around that or not, we have some sort of implicit experience with women, as a part of the birthing process. I don’t minimize that.
Secondly, women have always been in my life, shaping my life, defining my experiences. I’ve always had relationships with all kinds of women, not just women in my family, but friends, and bosses, etc. So I’ve been a sensitive observer of women’s experience, just like they have been sensitive observers of mine.
LBB: Strong Black Women is the first of a trilogy. The next book will look at the strength in the lives of black men. Will your father play an important role in it?
TT: I haven’t thought about that. My father is a strong man, but his strength is very quiet. He isn’t the driving force behind strong black men that my mother was the driving force behind strong black women. But, clearly, he will be a primary reference for me.
LBB: What will the third book be about?
TT: Strong black leadership.
LBB: Did you find your voice while writing Strong Black Women?
TT: Absolutely. I started off writing as if preparing an annual corporate report. I started off very academic. I almost did bullet points. It was important for me to be detached and objective. It wasn’t working, it wasn’t getting people excited.
I have a picture of my mother when she was twenty-one. It’s my favorite picture of her. I loaded it into the document that I was writing from, and I looked at it, and I started writing under it. The beginning of the book is called ‘A Word Before We Get Started,’ and that’s where I found my voice. Everything from that moment was a different person. It was me talking. Before that, I was arguing a position. When I put that picture there, and I started there, a new voice came through. Then I had to go back through each chapter and bring that voice to it. And now that’s who I am. I have felt very guided by her throughout this whole process.
LBB: What did you learn from being the Harlem Book Fair Coordinator in 2003?
TT: That writing and selling books is a passion and a business. And that if you’re going to be a celebrated author, and if you believe that your message is of value and should reach the largest audience, then you better learn how to be both--to be the best writer you can be, and the best businessperson you can be. People always told me that writing a book is the hardest part. But it’s not.
LBB: It’s the promotion of the book, the book fairs.
TT: It’s more than that. It’s getting the book into the right hands. It’s anticipating who can benefit from this and why, it’s knowing your primary, secondary, and tertiary audience, and figuring out how to pitch it to each differently. It’s also understanding the cycle of publishing. And all of that I’m learning now. I’ve spent hours and hours observing and evaluating other authors who have websites, to see what they do, what they don’t do. I’ve read tons and tons of material on publishing, guerilla publishing, and publicity. And we’ll see if, indeed, I’ve learned anything.
LBB: Can you talk about non-black people being apart of your audience?
TT: Absolutely. First of all, the book has been already read by quote unquote non-black people.
LBB: How do we say that?
TT: White people.
LBB: Well--red? Yellow?
TT: I don’t know if any red people or yellow people have read the book. It’s so funny because we all have a race we live with but it’s a weird thing for us to refer to, which means to me that ultimately it’s less significant than we give it credit for being. But nonetheless, I wanted to make sure that everyone could hear my message. My ghost editor is a white woman. She was helpful in saying, “I get this.” My agent is a white male. He was instrumental in helping me understand that he gets it, and how and why it’s important from his vantage point.
I look at my book as a book about strength in the lives of women where the example is black women. But the experience is not only a black woman’s experience. The example of strength as an experience is one we can all relate to, male or female.
LBB: How do you find the editing process?
TT: I had a committee of strong black women who all read the manuscript and gave me their clarifying ‘this makes sense, this doesn’t make sense’ sort of thing--because I am a man and I wanted to ensure that I’m not blind to certain things. I had a ghost editor who also added another level of correct writing, etc. My agent went through it. The editor of my publisher was phenomenal, helped really bring the book to the next level, said, “This is where your heart is. Let’s stay focused on that. Let’s make sure that they get it.”
The best writing is rewriting. I’d heard that, and I didn’t want to believe it.
LBB: What’s your writing routine?
TT: My rhythm is that I’m a morning writer. My whole life has to be set up to enable me to step into that. I get up at five a.m., when it’s quiet, when my mind is fresh, clear, and usually filled with ideas. I’m usually good to write until noon. In the afternoon, I need to put it down, I need to get out of the house, and what I’ve written is processing in the back of my head while I’m doing stuff. Then, late afternoon to late evening, I can maybe come back and read or edit some of it.
LBB: Do you listen to music while writing?
TT: No. I write in total silence.
LBB: What was your first writing workshop like?
TT: The first writing workshop I took at Florida International University in Miami. It was a weekend workshop on how to write a book in a year [laughs]. It covered all the things you’d expect. It was really for a novice, because that’s what I am. One thing the instructor said was that people buy books not because of what writers know, but because of what writers feel. People buy a book to engage the experience of another person, as opposed to the knowledge of another person, that knowledge isn’t really anything that’s new. I never forgot what he said, but I don’t think I really understood what he said. I think I had to stumble into it, because obviously I started writing for knowledge, and not for feeling.
LBB: What do you consider yourself? What do you identify yourself as?
TT: I tell people I’m a writer. I feel qualified, finally, to say that. And I love the reaction. I had no idea how sexy being a writer is. I’ve spent most of my life saying, “I’m an executive, I work for blah-blah-blah-blah, and my title is dar-da-dar-da-dar.” That never got me a date. Being a writer, saying I’m a writer, I have noticed that it engages people. And not only that, I find that conversations I have, when I put myself out as a writer, are much more interesting than the ones I have when I put myself out as a diversity consultant or a HR executive for a Fortune 50 company, which are all titles I’ve had. Everyone has a story. So being a writer invites people to revisit who they are, that story inside them.
LBB: To contrast that, what kind of writer do you expect to be branded as?
TT: Unfortunately I’ll be branded as an African American writer. My fear, and the reason I’m announcing that I’m doing a trilogy of books, is that I will only be invited to write and publish books to an African American readership exclusively. That’s my fear because that’s what I was encouraged to do from the very beginning when I started to get feedback from the publishing industry. And that was what I resisted. It wasn’t that I never wanted to write to black people. Instead, I didn’t want to be told when I should, and what I should. For my fourth book, my goal is to move beyond this audience as quickly as possible. I’m going to deliver my obligatory black books, so to speak, and then move on to a larger, human dimension that transcends the examination of race. I’m very interested, for example, in life and death.
LBB: So you’re not going to franchise your books like the ‘Idiots Guides’ or the ‘For Dummies’ series?
TT: No, I don’t think so.
LBB: In addition to being a diversity consultant for a human resources firm, you’ve also coached people to find direction in their lives, their personal definition of success and inner peace, etc. How did these roles provide a foundation for you as a writer?
TT: They provide a wonderful foundation because I get to see what people struggle with, the universality of our experiences. I get to see what people engage me around as a coach, the universality in terms of the hurdles that we all face and try to overcome.
I think the number one bullet that stops us from having the highest quality of life that we can have is communication. It’s bad, poor, weak communication. For whatever reason, we aren’t able to express ourselves authentically in the times that we really should. And that creates hurt, resentment, low self-esteem, and insecurities. It’s like a lack of courage to really be present around and articulate around what’s real for you in the moment.
LBB: How would you describe your writing style?
TT: It’s open, it’s conversational. Most of my writing is built around a question. I think Tony Robbins said once that questions drive us, not the answers. So, I write from the position of a question. The intent is not to give you the answer, but to keep you looking, to keep your intention set on what we just discussed.
LBB: Do you suffer writer’s block? How are you with it?
TT: The way I eliminate writer’s block is to eliminate stress from my life. Emotional stress for me delivers writer’s block, whether it’s people, other peoples’ drama, my drama. For me to write clearly, I have to become selfish. I tend to be someone who is always available to my dearest friends. But to write and be creative, I just can’t have a lot else on my plate, I have to turn my phone off, get lost, not return phone calls, be unavailable. In the midst of writing, if I get a block, I have to do something mindless, like go to the beach, sit at a café, go to a movie, play with my dogs, they’re great for releasing writer’s block.
LBB: How do you view literary fiction?
TT: I think it’s fascinating, it’s rigorous. I’d like to read some fiction that feels rigorous for me, that challenges me to think. The good thing about literary fiction, as I understand it, is that it can actually explore non-fiction in a fictional manner, in a way that gets us to hold up the real world as parallel to the non-real world, and make sense of the real world in a way that we only can through fiction. It enables me to leave my sensibility, and step into an entirely different set of rules. That helps me revisit my own reality.
LBB: Who or what influenced your writing early on?
TT: I have been, and continue to be, very influenced, and appreciative of the influence, of books by bell hooks. I’ve since had an opportunity to know her, and we’ve become good friends. I started reading bell hooks when she did her series on love, when she was investigating what love is. What she does for me is show how imperfect we are as a species, and that the beauty of this thing we call life is in the work that we do.
Dr. Wayne Dyer. His first big book was Erogenous Zones, twenty-five years ago. I’ve been very influenced by his work. I’ve read all of his books. He did one series called Manifest Your Destiny, and another one of Wisdom of the Ages.
Part 3: Toby as a person
LBB: What are you reading at the moment?
TT: Atonement and Forgiveness, a book I’m reviewing by a University of California professor named Royal Brooks. It’s his take on the whole issue of reparations. I’m also reading Suzi Orman, I’m rereading the whole series of the courage to be rich, and her whole prosperity message. I love her work.
LBB: Who will you vote for in the 2004 US Presidential race, and why?
TT: I’m very distraught over the upcoming elections. I won’t vote for George W. Bush, that I know, that’s what I’m really clear on. I’m very distraught with the current political situation in our country, the leadership, period. I’m not comfortable with any real choice.
LBB: What are your all-time favorite books?
TT: Patty LeBelle’s cookbook. I love Art Smith, who’s the chef of Oprah and has a wonderful book, Back To The Table. I love cookbooks because they are wonderful ways to bring people together. When I look at how you prepare a meal, all I want to hear are the sounds around the table that get generated from preparing a good meal. I don’t think anybody sits down at a table that’s been really prepared with them in mind, and leaves unhappy. If I know what Lee Bob likes is spaghetti with meatballs and pineapples, and I go out and get the best spaghetti with the ultimate best meatballs and imported pineapples, I have power of you. I’m going to make you the happiest little camper. I love that.
Another huge book was Message From Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That moved me.
LBB: What is the most untrue thing said about you?
TT: That I can’t, or that I will never.
LBB: How does living in Manhattan compare to Miami or Chicago?
TT: Chicago is the Midwest. It’s easy, predictable, cold. Miami is hot and steamy and free mangos in June and ocean and the beach and I soak it up. I love being a beached whale. I’m a tropical island boy. New York awakens my intellect. It heightens my consciousness through the people I meet, the creativity I am compelled to call upon. The other side of New York is that it is incredibly intense. This is not a place where you can just hang out. Miami, you can kick back, you can forget about time, you can just let things happen. You can’t do that here. You come to New York, you better have a goal, and you better be getting up and moving towards it, or else you will fall through the cracks, and no one will miss you.
LBB: How are you spiritual?
TT: I am a spiritual being having a human experience. I am a thirty-second degree Prince Hall Mason. As a child, I was a founder of the Order of Pythagoras, which was the young Masonic group in Wilmington, Delaware. My father’s a thirty-third degree Mason, my mother was a member of the Order of the Eastern Star. I have grown up in the church, raised United Methodist, gone to Baptist churches, gone to you name it, fundamentalist churches. Most recently, I’ve studied with the Brahmin Kumaris, Hindu philosophy, open-eye meditation. I have been very much a seeker and a student of a number of religious philosophies and practices, and where I come down on it is that I’m a spiritual being having a human experience.
LBB: Do you read poetry?
TT: Yes. I have a number of favorite poets. One is Elizabeth Alexander, an African American professor at Yale University. I love the poetry of Derrick Walcott, a Caribbean writer and poet. I love that Sufi poet, I forget his name, he’s huge, you know who I’m talking about, Madonna loved him for a while. [Hafiz.]
LBB: How is it to be a strong, black man in America?
TT: Sometimes it’s very lonely. I say that because part of being strong is knowing that sometimes you have to stand alone. And you have to lift and separate from what might feel like an easier road to travel, or at least a more populated road.
I am a six foot one, 275 pound, brown skin, black man with dreadlocks. I am built to create fear, anxiety, and intimidation in the un-informed minds of the average American public, just at the mere sight of me. And how I chose to respond to that, or the anticipation that that is more likely the norm than the exception, is an approximation to how strong I’m willing to be on any given day. I have decided that I will respond to the world not based upon their thoughts about me, but based upon my thoughts about myself, who I am, who I know myself to be, as a kind and gentle and giving person who can be hurt. Not as someone who is unfeeling or invincible. I don’t trust easily, as a result of the understanding of how I think the world in general can perceive me. But I also try not to hold that against everyone I encounter. My earlier statement about being a spiritual being having a human experience helps me in that way because I don’t have to look at you as anything other than a spiritual being. I look at how you show up as your human experience, but not necessarily who you are. What I appreciate are other people who have made a commitment to do the same in regards to me. Those people end up becoming my friends.
LBB: What did you learn from this interview?
TT: One thing that struck me is how much I still struggle with the notion of race, even in my own self-expression, how much I try to transcend the myths that I’m confronted with as a result of the color of my skin. I’m still managing those myths to ensure that people see the whole of who I am. I was surprised by that.
LBB: What movie have you seen more than any other?
TT: ET: the Extra-Terrestrial, ten times in the movie theatre.
LBB: How is it meeting famous writers?
TT: What I love about meeting famous writers, or prolific writers I’ll say, is how human they are. They usually live in some place less than the way in which they frame their experience. They’re human, and when they’re writing, they move beyond that human condition, they move outside of it in order to grab the richest observations that deliver something of value to us. They still have issues, they don’t have perfect lives, they have biases, particularities, negatives and positives just like the rest of us. But what they all possess is their ability to lift and separate from the day-to-day noise.
LBB: What was your first childhood memory?
TT: I was an infant at the World’s Fair, in the early Sixties, in Niagara Falls, Canada. I remember we were running through a parking lot in a thunderstorm. I remember the sound of the rain, the feel of it, the lightning bolts shooting across the sky, and being scared. My parents told me that it’s impossible for me to remember that. But I remember it.
LBB: What recurring dreams do you have?
TT: I’m in a house. I walk onto the patio, and there’s the beach and the ocean, and I live there. The air smells fresh and clean, and there’s fruit. It’s an environment where I wake up everyday, and just what’s there is enough for me.
LBB: What do your dreadlocks mean to you?
TT: That’s a wonderful question. Freedom. They mean freedom. I never knew what my hair looked like. Most of my life my hair has been cut short. I grew my dreadlocks because a dear friend of mine, who has dreadlocks, was searched by airport security, and they searched his things. I said to him, “You must have done something.” He said, “Oh, please. Look at you. You’re in a blue suit, with a Brooks Brothers tie and a short military haircut. You’re never going to get pulled over by security. Grow dreadlocks and you’ll understand how differently people see you.” I didn’t believe him. I had fake dreadlocks put in. It wreaked havoc everywhere. My parents thought I had lost my mind. My mother kept saying, “He’ll never get a job.” My friend was right. Something as simple and insignificant as hairstyle shaped how people perceived and interacted with me. Then I cut them. Now they’ve grown back. This is actually a very natural way for my hair to be worn. My hair is nappy, it naturally locks, and having dreads is just leaning into that, as opposed to denying the natural expression of my hair.
Interviewee: Toby Thompkins.
Interviewer: Lee Bob Black, www.LeeBobBlack.com
Interview date: September 2004.
Interview location: Manhattan, New York City.
The Real Lives of Strong Black Women
The Real Lives of Strong Black Women: Transcending Myths, Reclaiming Joy by Toby Thompkins, with a foreword by Victoria Rowell; Agate; 190 pages; ISBN 1-932841-00-8; US Publication date: October 22, 2004.
Near the beginning of this thoughtful, sensitive self-help book, Thompkins tells the story of how his mother, a "Strong Black Woman" and hardworking nurse, eventually found happiness after suffering a mild heart attack. "She discovered true inner peace for the first time," he writes. "Watching Mom reach this level of self-acceptance, self-caretaking, self-love and self-forgiveness was the greatest gift she could have given me." Now the life coach and professional speaker aims to help other Strong Black Women find that sort of peace. His approach is refreshingly nuanced: rather than lay out seven golden rules for Strong Black Women to follow, he offers probing questions, practical suggestions and dozens of first hand accounts from the women themselves and from the men whose lives they’ve influenced (sons, husbands, lovers, friends). Thus, his book functions as a starting point for deeper dialog and understanding. Chapters on mother-daughter relationships, dating, keeping the faith, creating a meaningful livelihood, healing from loss and reclaiming joy are arranged to cover all the permutations of self, platonic and romantic love. And Thompkins clearly has gone out of his way to include a variety of viewpoints, including those of people involved in interracial or gay or lesbian relationships. "By the sole virtues of my race and gender I was supposed to be the consummate professional, handle my life crisis, be the dependable rock for every soul who needed me, and, yes—the classic—require less from my lovers than they did from me," one woman explains. Thompkins shows women how to find a way out of that bind without losing their independence or themselves.
P.S. Here's some photos of Toby and I in his West Village apartment, taken after the interview:
Photo: Toby Thompkins and Lee Bob Black, September 2004.